It is with a barely perceptible guilt that I confess to using the lunch money my father gave me for school to purchase records rather than food (I don’t want to incriminate anyone but my grandmother may or may not have been an accomplice by making me lunches on the sly). When school got out I rode the bus to Rockpile or The Sound Factory (two of the local independent record shops) and, once there, made a bee line to the Import section. Even remembering this quickens my heartbeat and calls the hair on my arms to attention.
I loved the smell of these shops. There was no one thing that smelled especially pleasant. Rather it was the alchemic combination of plastic wrap, laminated cardboard, musty well-trodden carpet and vinyl that created a scent that was almost unbearably exciting to me. (Rockpile Records added to this mystical formula the scent of the owner’s cheap cologne, fast-food and stale beer).
Once I was at the racks I began my adventure by using my right index and middle fingers to slowly flip my way through the upright stacks. When a record caught my fancy I would gently pull it out with my right hand and reverently look at both sides. It was a sacred and sensual process wherein I held these objects (nay, these living organisms!) with excitement and tenderness. It was love. And it was passion. And it was the way the combination of these two things informed the way I touched these divine bearers of emotion and, at times, transformation.
The sneakily appropriated–but not stolen!–$15-20 I had in my pocket was everything I had. It was risky to buy a record I had never heard based on its cover. But the thrill was contingent on the risk! On the ride home I clutched the bag that held my record in eager anticipation: would it open new doors or leave me flat and disappointed?
I turn my attention to some of the records that invited themselves into my life. The record covers that made my heart flutter or filled my mind with wonder.
Dark. Romantic. Beautiful. Gloomy. A figure trapped within delicately patterned lace bowing its head. Something ancient. Certainly something far removed from my everyday existence. How do you pronounce “Cocteau”? Mystery is what drew me in. The need to unravel the mystery.
Monochromatic orange. I’m strangely drawn to her. She looks like she has lived. Like she knows something I don’t. She doesn’t look like anyone from school. Like anyone from the movies. She’s pretty but in a way that’s…different. Is that the artist? The singer? No, no, no–it can’t be, because here’s another thing from them..
A half-naked man. Will my family ask questions if I buy this? They won’t care. They never pay attention. But last year my grandpa “accused” me of being gay. Will he bring that up again? Nah, he won’t see it. The Smiths? Why would you choose that as the name for your band? It’s so fucking plain and boring. But these photographs…I can’t stop looking at them. Moody. I think I have felt the things these people are feeling. (I bought the latter on this occasion.)
What is the name of the band? Is that the song title or the band name? It must be the song. Why wouldn’t you put the name of the band on the cover? This is so beautiful but it makes me feel sad. I feel a bit frightened. What if this hurts? “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. I’m not sure what it means but I can feel that it means something to me. Why? It’s a 12″ single and not an album. $10 for two songs. I can’t stop looking. [The band’s name is Joy Division]
The Cocteau Twins record transported me into a new world. I’d never heard a singing voice like Liz Fraser’s: ethereal and angelic. The music was singular as well: a gentle beautiful noise; more abstract soundscapes than songs. To this day I can’t articulate why their music makes me feel loved, but it does. In retrospect, this music helped me connect to the parts of me that were imaginative, romantic and mysterious.
The Smiths were so direct and poetic. The songs were these sad (and sometimes funny) tales about a person (Morrissey) who seemed to be fumbling his way through life. Perpetually lonely. Constantly heartbroken. I was excited and intrigued that the songs were addressed to men and, very often, a generic “they”. Somehow it made me feel more understood. It felt…expansive. And the music! Though Johnny Marr’s music could be melancholy at times, it was always beautiful and often jubilant and bright. There was a sparkle and shine to it that contrasted perfectly with the sometimes morose operatic sound of Morrissey’s voice. They became the most important band of my life. I felt understood. They gave me permission to find my own version of “cool”: a sensitive and lonely outsider who didn’t have to be ashamed of being different.
The relationship I had to Joy Division was more complicated. I loved the music–the melodic and heavy bass lines and the exciting drumming. The sound was spacious and stark. But the voice, it sounded…like a person choking on their own pain: slightly out-of-tune, dramatic and dark. The words were painful to hear. I would enter into their world and then need to back away from it in order to survive. It was a special place that required a certain headspace. (This is no longer true for me. As I got older I began to hear the music as something more akin to…a very unique form of rock n’ roll.)
The trip to the record shop was a search for love, companionship, understanding and transformation. Music was my best friend, lover and mentor. For better and worse it held me in its arms and carried me to places I could not have otherwise visited. It gave me something to love (and be loved by) until I could learn to cultivate love with people. I will forever be grateful to the music and to the sacred record shops that gave me access to it.
[P.S. I told my father this afternoon that I used the lunch money he gave me in high school to buy records. He looked at me, smiled sincerely and shrugged his shoulders. My guess is that the thirty plus years that have passed have softened him up some. Either that or he knows something about the statute of limitations on these sorts of crimes.]
The term “post-punk”, like any label that gets attached to art, is both informative and meaningless. For the interest of this article I wish to attach my own flawed definition in order that I may move forward with minimal pedantry.
You are free to disagree with my definition and with who I include in this movement, but know that this is meant to be the beginning of a series of love letters to the music that has accompanied me from adolescence through the present. It is not meant to be a critical analysis. I am neither critic, muso, nor historian. Though my taste in music covers a wide-spectrum, the post-punk movement contains the music with which I have most connected. I see myself reflected in this complicated, difficult, off-center, flawed and even beautiful music (finding the beauty requires a personal investment and that is my favorite form of beauty). A love letter is meant to come from the heart. And it is from my heart that I wish to write. I will begin by providing a bit of context before moving into the love.
To me post-punk refers to a period and style of music which both overlaps with and emerges from first wave punk. The sound embodies the energy and do-it-yourself ethos of punk (anyone is free to have a go regardless of technical ability) with an avant-garde and modernist approach that combines seemingly disparate non-rock influences like funk, reggae, modern classical and free jazz. Where punk was about returning to the basics of rock ‘n roll and giving it back to the people (rejecting the complicated and bullshit mythology of the male rock-god and the hard-rock sounds that were but dull appropriations of good blues music), post-punk was about injecting punk with a large dose of nuance and experimentalism.
One of the key elements of post-punk is its unpredictable and chaotic nature. What first drew me in was the way the sound captured the despair, grief and chaos of my own soul. I will use as an example the Public Image Limited song “Swan Lake” (aka “Death Disco”).
Final in a fade Watch her slowly die Saw it in her eyes Choking on a bed Flowers rotting dead Seen it in her eyes Ending in a day Silence was a way Seeing in your eyes Seeing in your eyes Seeing in your eyes I’m seeing through my eyes Words cannot express
Listen to the way John Lydon wails (not sings) his way through the song. He captures the felt sense of someone going unhinged by watching their mother slowly die of cancer. It is the sound of cold and anguished grief and despair. The sound of someone trying to make sense of their pain and loss. At times it feels like insanity. Pay special attention to Keith Levene’s guitar sound: challenging, scratchy textures that contribute to the despair rather than provide redemption through melody.
Here I refer back to the title of this article. I wish to focus on the rhythm of this song. What I wouldn’t have been able to articulate in my youth (though I’m sure I had a felt sense of it) is that the chaos and despair that rises to the top of the music is anchored by the steady grounded sound of the bass and drums (though the rhythm section of almost any contemporary music is meant to be an anchor, it feels especially salient when the guitars and vocals are flirting with madness).
Listen to the way Jah Wobble’s repetitive (almost funky) bass line keeps everything firmly rooted. If the vocals and the guitars are the sound of a despairing heart, the bass and drums are the sound of a body rooted to ground. From this grounded place John and Keith can enter into their temporary madness without completely disintegrating. And that, my dear reader, is what makes a song like this so exciting: it is the sound of near-disintegration. It takes us right to the limits of our despair while giving us a rope to hold onto for dear life. It speaks of death while being firmly rooted in life.
When once you find this for yourself, you will appreciate the beauty of the song. The way it captures a deeply human experience. And then suddenly, this thing that at first glance was spotty and disheveled, becomes a gorgeous and soulful living organism.
Though post-punk varies greatly in sound, I do believe that a common element is how it relies on its rhythms to create sanity (and sometimes melody), thereby giving the guitars and vocals free rein to travel to unpredictable and challenging places.
I understand that to many it will remain a noisy and difficult song with an unbearable sound. That’s okay. We can’t all fall in love with the same people and things. I merely wish to begin the process of coming out; of bringing to the light of day the reasons I fell, and remain, in love.
The door is latched. The blinds are drawn.
The hum of my fan playing a breezy steady tune. The whoosh of cars passing in the distance. The conversations of neighbors—muffled and indistinct. The flush of the toilet next door. The thud of a drawer hastily shut.
These are the sounds holding my heart together.
On this third day straight of feeling physically exhausted I am beginning to lose the peace I experienced by simply giving into it. It is fascinating to observe. I can see that it is not actually a choice (at least not in the way that deciding to fix a sandwich for lunch is one). After doing my best to rest for a few days (while still exercising and working) I find that my body is more listless; my head, sleepier.
I feel drunk and stoned but I did nothing save sleep for 9.5 hours after having two simple days of being present and content. I want so badly to leave the house and go for a walk right now but I honestly feel like it would be dangerous–like someone walking after swallowing a few Xanax pills. I suppose the anger I feel over this is something akin to: Really?! This is my reward?! Feeling like I’m on drugs for no reason whatsoever?!!
The last month has been a time of experiments for me. First I took a vacation. It was a helpful vacation. That is to say, I enjoyed it and did not fall into any significantly collapsed state of being. My first and second week back from work, I tried to stay with myself more in my sessions. To “hang back”, as it were. I also tried to set more boundaries in my private life: if I was tired after work I would say goodnight immediately after my final client; if I was not ready to listen to a long message I waited until I was. In short, I did everything I set out to do. But when last Wednesday rolled around, I could feel that I had reached that familiar place of exhaustion; that I was one step away from falling into numbness and then….rage? collapse?
But again, I decided to try yet another experiment: I let myself be exhausted. I didn’t apologize for it. I surrendered and the surrender led me to a peaceful place for just under two days. Content. Simple. Easy. Why not stay with something that was clearly so helpful? I don’t know. It was there when I opened my eyes this morning.
I woke up today at 9:15am. My first thought was, “What the fuck?! Why are you so tired after taking care of yourself for three days?!” I breathed. I began to dawn on me (again) that I cannot avoid falling into this place. That this is my life. Work. Work. More work. Tired. Do my best. Survive. This is the life for the majority of people in this country. In that sense, I am not special. But at the risk of incurring judgment (and dear reader, this is one time where I would not judge you for being judgmental of me): I’m too sensitive to live this way. But I do. And I will.
I often do not give myself enough credit for the life force it takes to persevere through this. So much of my life force gets drained through my work. And my experiments have allowed me to see that even when I avoid working like an “empath” and even when I try to stay true to myself…I end up here.
So what does giving in mean now? What does surrendering mean at this very moment? I’m not sure. And I feel too foggy to answer it. So give in to the fogginess maybe? Then what? What happens Monday when I am not afforded the luxury of giving in? When I have to caffeinate myself through another day?
To those out there who go through a difficult work life without this much anguish, I salute you and send you a lot of respect. To those who drag themselves through their work: know that you’re not alone. And to those who do not need to work this much (here I am of course not counting those who are underemployed or unemployed through no choice of their own), please appreciate how luxurious it is to live your life on your terms. And I will try to appreciate how I live life more on my terms than many others in the world. I’ll try.
As I was about to finish this up (this is definitely one of those times when I couldn’t give a shit about editing) I realized that I have a gift that….sometimes feels like a curse. Well, I have a couple of those. But the one I’m referring is my ability to make do even when essential things are missing from my life. Whether it be love, sex, affection, financial security…I find a way to feed myself. Sometimes it’s messy and I choose a dark path that only drives me further into collapse. But for the most part I find a way to feel accompanied in life. I find a way to be loving. I’m resourceful. But I suppose what I lack (and I’m not saying this is a good or bad thing but I know it would make me sound less whiny) is a “stiff upper lip”.
There are certain players in sports who are known for being both tough and whiny. It sounds like a paradox, but bear with me here. These athletes are ones who play through serious pain and injury but who cannot help but share that they are in pain. In the toxic masculine culture of men’s athletics, they are frowned upon for not hiding their suffering. Though some of them might be attention seekers, I would hazard a guess that the majority of them are just too sensitive to keep it under wraps. That is me: you wouldn’t know it to look at me (overly sensitive, mercurial, child-like at times) but I’m tougher than nails.
The man across the way
sneezes from deep in his soul
I pause my film
The joy! The relief!
Could it be that I feel almost as contented as he?
First I must learn
To sneeze from the depths of my soul
How lovely it is to live like a gentle observer–of others, of the world. of myself. It feels as if all I need is right here within reach: a bed on which to sleep; sidewalks on which to stroll; unseasoned turkey patties and vegetables on which to dine; books to read; films to watch; games to play; and windows from which to idly observe the outside world. My thoughts are pleasant and easy. They lead to nowhere important. My emotions are there but they’re only gentle breezes. I feel happily…dumb.
From this place it is hard to recognize that version of me who complains of romantic loneliness and who has, at times, envied those who have not known loneliness like mine. From where I currently stand I am the enviable one. Content with so little. My biggest moves are but tiny adjustments for my bodily comfort: positioning the fan in a certain direction; opening a window; getting a glass of water.
Who am I right now? A gentle soul with a gentle smile. Content. Simple. Unattached. Lazy. Relaxed. Perhaps even slightly naive. Loving…yes. But without longing.
Even in this dumb naivety, I know that this too shall pass. Perhaps in an hour. Perhaps in a few days. But for now I want to keep following this path without hope or expectation. This path of…surrender.